Continuing on with Final Fantasy: Returning Hope!
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As was his custom, Locke was the last one to wake the next morning. For a moment he lay under the covers, listening to the low, constant rumble of the motorized fortress passing through the earth. He’d expected the noise to keep him up all night, but it had actually been quite soothing. He’d had a decent night’s sleep for the first time in a long time and was rather loathe to end it.
It was the sound of hushed voices outside his door that finally drove him from the feather mattress. He thought he recognized the owners of the quiet words, so in the true spirit of an adventurer he crept to the door and laid his ear against it.
“All I’m saying,” came the exasperated tone of the king of Figaro, “is that Locke has a complicated past. So I wouldn’t go thinking that he’s fallen for you or anything like that.”
“I appreciate your concern,” the Magitek knight responded a little frostily. “But you needn’t worry yourself. I’m a soldier, not some love-starved twit.”
Locke had whipped the door open before he knew how he wanted to react. Edgar and Celes jumped half a foot each before turning to him with exceptionally guilty looks on their faces. After what seemed like a very long, very awkward silence, Locke forced an unsteady smile on his face. “Good morning,” he offered, pretending he’d heard nothing. “What’s the plan?”
Celes’ eyes shifted so that she was looking toward the ceiling, but Edgar cleared his throat and attempted to salvage the situation. “We’ll be surfacing in ten minutes, so we’ll set out for Kohlingen as soon as you’re ready.”
Locke nodded curtly, struggling to hold the corners of his mouth up. “I’ll meet you in the courtyard then,” he offered before rudely closing the door in his companions’ faces. He stared at the door until he heard the king and the knight shuffle away, and then he slammed his palms against the unforgiving wood.
A complicated past, he thought. Is that how Edgar thinks of me? And where does he get off telling something like that to Celes?
His blood was practically boiling, but after a few minutes of deep breaths he managed to calm himself down enough to get dressed. By the time he was ready to go he felt certain that he could face the others without losing his cool.
The castle began to surface as he was walking through the halls. It was an odd sound as the sand and rocks tumbled down around the stone structure, like rain that was much more furious and much louder. The mechanically sealed windows began to slid open as the noises receded, so that Locke could see the bright sun and clear skies of the Western desert. By the time he reached the courtyard the last of the sand was being shunted through the castle’s complicated drain and vent system. The others were waiting for him, but only Sabin greeted him with an innocent smile.
The Figaro team had brought them a massive distance; the group had only to travel less than an hour on foot to reach the small town of Kohlingen. Locke’s chest constricted a little more with each step they took toward it, but he put one foot in front of the other, focusing on the blue sky and the green fields, and tried desperately to keep his companions from noticing his growing discomfort. What he couldn’t stop was the way his eyes kept betraying him and glancing toward Celes.
They’re completely different, really, he insisted to himself. Hair color, eye color…it’s all different. They don’t even really look alike at all.
But in the back of his mind he knew he was purposely ignoring the similarities: the proud way they both held themselves, the pale porcelain texture of their skin, the gentle curve of their throats. Locke had to bite his tongue as they entered the flowery town of his greatest pain. Luckily, a much-needed distraction was provided almost immediately.
The man who met them outside the town’s small inn had seen better days. He was an older man with a scruffy face who looked as though he hadn’t slept in a week. As soon as he spotted the king he came running toward them with his mouth open. “Over here, your highness, sir!” he called. “I’m the one what sent you the pigeon!”
Edgar nodded politely and gestured for the man to lead them. “Please show me the house.”
The man happily obliged, yammering the whole way about the fright he got and how inconvenienced he’d been. When they stopped in front of the small cottage Locke began to understand why he was so hyper. The house was all but destroyed; the windows were shattered, the outer walls scorched black, and a major piece of the roof had been smashed in, leaving a gapping hole.
“The monster just landed here and started shooting balls of fire at me house!” the man complained, hopping around the lawn and pointing at everything as he spoke. “T’was a crazed thing with evil in its eyes, t’was!”
Locke felt his jaw twitch at the man’s words. This was, after all, his friend they were talking about. He was about to say something rude when a small voice piped up.
“That’s not true at all!”
The group turned to a young girl in pigtails and her mother, who had evidently followed them there. The mother looked conflicted, but the girl looked furious. “That’s not what happened at all!” the girl shouted. “She wasn’t a monster and she wasn’t evil! She was pretty and nice, and she was just scared of you, you mean old man!”
The man’s face was turning as red as a beet, so Locke stepped in before a fight could break out. He went down on one knee to be face-to-face with the precious child. “Did you see our friend too?” he asked.
She nodded, full of excitement. “She landed right in front of me!” she recounted, her face all smiles. “Everyone was really scared of her, but I thought she was so pretty, so I went to talk to her!”
“And what did she say?” Sabin asked.
“She asked me if I was afraid of her,” the girl explained. “And I told her no. Then she asked me why not, and I told her that I wasn’t afraid because she wasn’t scary!”
The mother, with a sad kind of smile on her face, placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder and addressed the king. “I don’t know what she was, but I don’t believe that the creature was evil. She landed right in front of my daughter and I could see that she had gentle eyes. She didn’t seem cruel, just confused and upset.”
The old man had heard enough, and he practically knocked Edgar aside to shout at the mother. “That monster destroyed my house!” he screamed.
The girl almost shouted back, but the mother beat her to it. “That was only after you threatened her with your rifle, you old coot!”
Edgar’s eyebrows nearly rose off his head. “Is this true?” he asked the old man. The response he got was a lot of coughing and sputtering.
“The creature hadn’t done anything at all violent or threatening,” the mother insisted while the daughter nodded her agreement. “Then this old fool came running at her with his hunting rifle and shouted that he was going to blow her head open if she didn’t leave. If the poor thing got a little carried away while trying to defend herself, I completely understand why!”
The look on the old man’s face was almost comical. “But…but…my house!” he stammered, looking foolish. “What about my house!”
Edgar looked as angry as Locke felt. “You threatened to kill a creature without any kind of provocation what-so-ever! The damage to your house, which occurred as a direct result of that poor decision-making, is no longer any of my concern!”
The little girl nodded briskly. Locke laughed aloud and tossed her a candy he’d had in his pocket. She flashed him an award-winning grin.
When the old man started shouting stupidly about defending the town and being a hero, a small crowd began to form. Locke saw the distraction, shot a look at Sabin that meant, “I’ll be back,” and slipped off to the northern area of town. As he walked he passed a small how that he knew had remained empty for several years now. He almost stopped to look inside, but he had a different destination in mind.
He knew he shouldn’t, but he just had to see her.
A jaunty bell jingled above the herbalist’s door as he entered the building. The herbalist – a hundred years old if he was a day – was standing there waiting for him, all snow-white hair and dirty, shrunken teeth. The herbalist always seemed to know when Locke was going to drop by.
“It’s been a while, Locke,” croaked the ancient man. “Ages, even! But worry not. Your treasure is still quite safe!” He winked a wrinkled eye and cackled with joy. The man had already been senile when Locke had met him, and time had clearly not improved his condition.
Locke nodded solemnly, and quietly descended the long stairwell to the lower level. The basement room was laden with flowers that the old herbalist had dried and piled there, and amid the sea of reds and pinks was a bed. On that bed lay a girl with hair so black it almost seemed blue against her pale, snowy skin. Locke moved close, his chest aching, and stroked her cheek. But her eyes did not flutter open. Her eyes had not opened now for many, many years.
“Who is she?” came a soft whisper from behind him.
Locke closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Celes stepped up beside him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You seemed upset about something, so I followed you.” She was staring at the girl in the bed with great interest.
Locke sighed inwardly. No sense in trying to hide it, he told himself.
“Her name is Rachel.”
“Locke!” Rachel giggled, so happy. “Where are we off to today?”
Her voice rang like bells against the walls of the cave. Locke loved how it sounded. His heart leapt. He grinned and winked at her, a playful rogue very much in love. “There’s supposed to be an amazing treasure hidden somewhere in the cave,” he told her. “We’re gonna find it!”
He ran across the bridge in excitement, reckless, foolish. He heard the loud crack before he heard Rachel’s voice screaming, “Locke! Look out!”
She pushed him out of the way as the bridge collapsed. He cried her name in horror.
He kept a vigil by her bedside for days before her eyes finally fluttered open. He couldn’t control his tears. “Rachel! You’re awake!”
But the look she gave him was not one of love. It was one of confusion.
“Who are you? Who am I? I don’t remember anything.”
Rachel’s father was furious in his grief. It only took a couple of days for his anger to reach the tipping point. He clipped Locke’s chin with his fist and shoved him out the front door. Locke sprawled across the ground. A rock tore his pants and ripped open his knee.
“Get out of my house! This is all your doing! It’s your fault that Rachel lost her memory!”
It was true. It was all true.
“Wait!” Locke begged from his knees. “Please, just let me talk to her!”
Rachel came out the door then, but her eyes were cold. “Just go away, please!” she cried. “I don’t know who you are, but my parents get upset whenever you come here!”
Locke’s heart felt as though it was shattering. “But Rachel, I-”
He sat and stared at the house for hours after they went inside, until the moon was up and the stars were out. He was cold, but he couldn’t move.
A neighbor, late home from an evening at the bar, happened by and stopped to impart some wisdom. “Rachel would be better off without you hanging around, Locke. She’s going to have to make a new start of it. With you here, she won’t be able to do that.”
Though she was trying hard to hide it, Celes looked aghast.
“I left,” Locke told her, all the time his eyes on Rachel. “A year passed. When I finally returned, I learned that Rachel had just been killed in an Imperial attack.” He took a deep, slow breath before continuing. “Her memory returned just before she died. I was told… I was told that the last thing she said was my name.”
Celes’ hand raised to her mouth. Her face was even more pale than usual.
“I never should have left her side,” Locke croaked. “I failed her.”
Celes didn’t seem to know what to say, but she was saved the trouble by the old herbalist, who’d been listening in from the staircase.
“It’s a good thing I’d just happened to have all the proper herbs back then!” he cackled. “She’ll never age a day! Had to use my herbs, I did! Couldn’t very well refuse with him begging like that!”
Celes examined the dead woman’s face with a look of amazement. “So shes-?”
Locke nodded. “I was grief-stricken. I had the old man preserve Rachel in a kind of suspension. I hoped-” He clenched his fists tight, the pain and anger as fresh as it had ever been. “There’s this legendary treasure that’s supposed to be able to… I though perhaps I could… Call her back.” He glanced sideways at Celes, trying to gauge her reaction. He thought she looked contemplative. Thoughtful. Perhaps a little upset.
“She’s quite beautiful,” she said after a while.
Locke nodded. When the awkwardness became too much he turned, strode past the less-than-sane herbalist, and left the house. There he waited by a small, babbling brook until he felt Celes reappear beside him.
“I never really thanked you for saving me,” she said.
It wasn’t what he’d been expecting. He gave her a curious look.
She continued, “The Empire has caused you great pain. When you saw me in chains you could have easily left me to die and felt justified that I deserved my fate. Instead you rescued me, at the risk of slowing yourself down and getting caught. And on top of all that you defended my honor against your ally and gave me a chance to prove myself.” She turned to Locke, to face him, and the look she gave him was one of awe. It was as though no one had ever shown her true kindness before. “So, thank you.”
Locke felt his face grow hot and quickly turned so that Celes wouldn’t see. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say that it had been nothing, and murmured a quiet, “You’re welcome.”
The Figaro brothers found them like this, standing together, staring down at the gently trickling water.
“How did it turn out?” Celes asked.
Edgar gave the too of them an interested look before responding. “The old extortionist broke down and begged me to help repair his house,” he grumbled. “I gave him a small purse just to shut him up.” The frown on his face suggested that he was already regretting that decision.
Sabin, on the other hand, was grinning from ear to ear. “Then,” he added, “he gave the girl and her mother enough for them to be in food and toys for a year!”
Locke couldn’t help it; a deep belly-laugh escaped. Celes joined in.
Edgar allowed himself a small smile, but he shook his head. “You won’t be laughing when you hear where we’re headed.”
Locke stopped chuckling at once. If Edgar was being this serious, he thought he knew what was coming next.
“Between what the townspeople have told us and the reports we’ve received from Jidoor, our path is clear,” Edgar sighed. “We’re headed for ZoZo.”